Change and Continuity: The Role of Returned Diaspora in Postcommunist Politics in the Baltics
January 26, 2005
Staff-prepared summary of the EES discussion with Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss, Senior Research Analyst, USAID Development Information Services and PhD Candidate, University of Maryland-College Park

Ever since their independence, members of the diaspora have been prominent members of the political elite in the Baltic States. While diasporas have played a role in the postcommunist transitions throughout Europe, few countries have had such a strong and overwhelmingly positive experience as the Baltic States. In her research, Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss analyzed the relationship between these émigré groups and their native lands, contrasting the experiences in Lithuania and Latvia. As neighboring countries with the same history of soviet occupation, Lithuania and Latvia share much in common. Moreover, both countries currently have presidents that lived most of their lives abroad.

Through in-depth interviews Skulte-Ouaiss determined several characteristics returned diaspora working in the political sphere share. Many have been prominent members of their respective diaspora communities. Moreover, émigrés that have been influential in Latvia and Lithuania tend to be people who have achieved significant success abroad. As a result, the average age of influential émigrés tends to be high?around 60. In Latvia the age range was somewhat larger than in Lithuania. Age and success abroad are factors because they help people seem less prone to corruption and have close ties to the country.

Yet, Skulte-Ouaiss's research has uncovered important distinctions between the relationships between the diaspora communities and the national governments of the two countries. These differences stem in part from their distinct political institutions. For example, Latvia's citizenship law aims at creating continuity between the inter-war and postcommunist republic. As a result, naturalization required blood ties to citizens of the inter-war Latvia. In Lithuania, citizenship was not based solely on ethnicity, and greater emphasis was placed on residence. The effects of these institutional differences were that there were far fewer disenfranchised people in Lithuania, leaving less room for diaspora to take political positions. In Latvia, by contrast, the citizenship laws encouraged diaspora to return to Latvia and become involved in the political sphere.

One legacy of communism was the atomization of society: the authoritarian regime worked to break down civil society so that the state was the sole link between people. After communism, these countries craved both local and global networks. Individuals from the diaspora communities were able to supply these networks. One clear example of how emigres' networks helped these countries is that of retired US Army Colonel Jonas Kronkaitis, who was able to lobby for NATO enlargement to the Baltics due to his personal contacts with Colin Powell and Senator John Warner, head of the Armed Services Committee.

In terms of measuring continuity versus change, Skulte-Ouaiss pointed out the need to determine the point of continuity. In Latvia, where there was a concerted effort to establish continuity with the inter-war democracy, the diaspora had a greater role in elite politics, which led to more change from the recent communist past. In Lithuania, there was more continuity with the authoritarian regime initially, which created hurdles for emigres hoping to enter the political elite. As a result change there was more gradual.